1273 – 1903
From knights to clothiers and smugglers to Sheriffs, things have
not always been as peaceful at the Walled Nursery as they are today.
However, the first 600 years were a time of flourishing growth for the
land then known as ‘Tongs’.
The Walled Nursery and neighbouring St Ronan’s School once combined
to create the Estate known as Tongswood. The place name derived from the
fact that two streams of the river Rother flows through the original
Estate. Twang or tang is old English, meaning fork of two river streams.
The first record of 'Tongs' was found in the Kent Hundred
Rolls: 'Simon held land in Kent in 1273 - Simon de Tonge'.
However, it was the birth of the English Cloth Trade in the 14th Century
that really put Tongs on the map. A Flemish Clothier by the name of
Dunk was invited over to England to share his skills and he settled in
Kent. It was the early generations of the Dunk family who built the
first house on what became known as Tongswood.
passed through generations of Dunks, who expanded from cloth to
ironworking until, under the watch of Sir Thomas Dunk Kt., the Estate
grew to around 1200 acres. Sir Thomas (Sheriff of London, 1711) was a
great entrepreneur and highly respected man, given the Freedom of the
City of London. He was also a great benefactor and when he died in 1718
he left six almshouses, a school and a school master’s house to the
village of Hawkhurst.
The executor of Sir Thomas’ will, William Richards, inherited the
Estate in 1733 on condition he change his name to Dunk. This condition
passed down to future heirs and when his daughter Anne inherited the
Estate, she therefore became Anne Dunk.
In 1741, Anne married the Hon. George Montagu (2nd Earl of Halifax),
bringing with her the princely sum of £110,000. Montagu, in
keeping with the condition of the will, changed his name to
Montagu-Dunk. Anne sadly passed away at the tender age of 28 in 1753.
George conveyed Tongs to be leased to Mr Jeremiah Curteis of Rye for
1000 years at the yearly rate of sixpence. Rumours have been whispered
about Mr Curteis for years: that he was involved in the Hawkhurst Gang –
the notorious smugglers terrorising southeast England at the time; that
he fled England for France after the murder of a young labourer; that
he died of smallpox several years later on a boat returning home.
All these things were almost certainly true of a Mr Jeremiah Curteis
of Rye, but was he our Jeremiah Curteis? Our research has recently
revealed another Jeremiah Curteis in Rye at the same time. Perhaps less
colourful, he was (on the surface at least) infinitely more noble - a
lawyer and a town clerk. We are endeavouring to establish which Mr
Curteis is ours, but until we prove otherwise, we know which story we
Whether he be smuggler or lawyer, Mr Curteis moved on from Tongswood
and conveyed his interest to William Jenkin (d.1784). From this point
until 1841, Tongswood passed through numerous families, but was already
becoming noted for her beauty. In 1839, a sale advertisement for a
section of the Estate described a farmhouse with outbuildings as a
‘complete ferme ornée’. Ferme Ornée Gardens were inspired by the
Romantic Movement and sought to emulate Arcadia, a pastoral paradise,
combining working farms harmoniously with the beauty of nature.
first glasshouses were built by Foster and Pearson Limited of
Nottingham during the mid to late 1800’s. There are no records of the
exact year that they were built, but research suggests it may have been
around 1870. In 1865 a tea broker named William Cotterill bought the
main house and surrounding land for £8750. From this time until 1874,
Cotterill carried out extensive work on the house and gardens on a scale
not seen before, so it is most likely during this period that the
glasshouses were built.
The Estate continued changing hands quite rapidly until 1903 when it
was bought by Mr C E Gunther. It was a new century and things were about
to change for Tongswood.
1903 – 1945 The Gunther Years
As a new century dawned, Britain was in the throes of the second
phase of the Industrial Revolution. Scientific invention was at its
height and the economy was thriving. Unemployment was relatively low and
Liberal Welfare Reforms were on the way. Britain – and Tongswood - were
moving into a bright, hopeful future, unaware of what was waiting
around the corner.
Charles Gunther bought the Tongswood Estate in 1903. At this time the
estate stretched up to Benenden taking in Park Farm, Tilden, Great and
Little Ninevah, Woodsden, Forest Farm, Diprose, Hinksden, Stevens Farm
and Tongswood Home Farm.
was High Sheriff of Kent from 1926-1927 and a distinguished
businessman. He was Chairman of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company
(founded by his father) as well as Director of OXO, which celebrated 100
years of the OXO cube in 2010.
1903, gardening and horticulture was still benefitting from the
excitement of the daring Victorian Plant Hunters and it was the height
of fashion to have grand houses to show off one’s exotic plants. So when
Gunther took over the Tongswood Estate, he built more glasshouses. He
also added cold frames and made adjustments to the Vinery by adding the
Fernery and raising the roofs. Determined to make his mark, he then
raised the walls of the gardens.
Tongswood Gardens, as the Walled Nursery was then known, required
nine men to tend to the two acre garden and its glasshouses. There were
now 13 glasshouses in total, including a vinery, peach house, melon
house, fruit house and carnation house. The garden produced beautiful
flowers, fruit and vegetables, providing for the main house, their house
in London and even surplus produce for the Hawkhurst Cottage Hospital.
took a fine man to manage such a large concern and that man was Mr
Ernest Hardcastle, Head Gardener 1914-45. Mr Hardcastle also worked
alongside renowned Quaker botanist, James Backhouse, in designing and
building an acre of spectacular rock gardens for Mr Gunther.
While Tongswood was thriving, tragedy was not to spare the Gunther
family. In 1910, Charles’ first wife, Leonie, died of an illness and in
1914 The Great War darkened their doors. In 1917, Charles and Leonie’s
son, Norman, died in Northern France aged just 19 and was awarded the
Military Cross. Norman’s brother, Charles, died only a year later also
in the fields of Northern France, aged 28. 12 other men from the Estate
did not return from the War and the Gunthers erected a memorial in
honour of those they had lost.
Mr Gunther re-married in 1912. His new wife, Helen Bell, took a great
interest in the gardens of the Estate and brought them great acclaim.
In 1925, their sub-tropical gardens appeared in Gardeners’ Chronicle. By
1927, Tongswood Gardens were considered among the top 50 in the country
and in 1930, their Rockery was featured in Country Life Magazine.
Unfortunately tragedy was to strike again when Charles Gunther died
of a heart attack at his shooting lodge at the Paper Mill in 1931. He
was 68 years old. Helen then auctioned 670 acres of the outlying
portions of the Estate.
In 1939, war returned and the house at Tongswood was requisitioned by
the army. Helen moved to a new house, Little Tongs, at the end of Water
Lane. After the war in 1945 the estate was sold to St Ronan’s School
and as for many estates at that time, it was the end of an era.
1945 to Present Day
It was 1945 and the world would never be the same again. Relief
at the end of the war was soon replaced by despair and frustration at
continued rationing and inadequate housing. Britain wanted change. Class
distinctions were broken down. The modern Welfare State and the NHS
were born. The Empire was crumbling and large Estates such as Tongswood
also had to change with the times.
By 1945, the Tongswood Estate was somewhat depleted and what remained
was owned by St Ronan’s school. The house and the main grounds were
utilised by the school, but what should they do with Tongswood Gardens?
did not come to an end until 1954 and the Dig for Victory campaign was
still in place long after the troops came home, so St Ronan’s School
began to lease Tongswood Gardens to a succession of market gardeners.
The first was Jack Cripps. Jack and his staff – some no more than
children – would work their fingers to the bone from dusk to dawn,
growing fruit and vegetables to transport around the country and help
feed the nation. Later market gardeners included Roland Playford and Jim
Weeks. It seemed that Tongswood Gardens had found her place in a
However, as Britain moved away from austerity towards supermarket
shopping, cheap imported produce and readymade meals, it was never going
to be easy to keep such a large concern going – particularly as the
glasshouses were slowly being allowed to fall into a substantial state
of disrepair. The future began to look uncertain.
leased the gardens for a number of years, Peter and Karen Horn had
fallen in love with the gardens and the glasshouses. In 1995 they
purchased the site and gave it a new lease of life. They turned it into a
plant nursery and changed the name from Tongswood Gardens to The Walled
Nursery. They began to lovingly restore what glasshouses they could on a
micro-budget and are today credited with saving them from total ruin.
Peter and Karen decided to retire but fortunately two more people,
who loved The Walled Nursery just as much, were waiting in the wings. In
2010 Monty and Emma Davies purchased the Walled Nursery and took over
guardianship of the glasshouses – their Demanding Ladies.
Society is now turning back to home-made produce. Awareness of
climate change and dangers of imported diseases from plants is growing.
Slowly but steadily, the Walled Nursery was coming back into her own.
But there were still the Demanding Ladies to contend with and if you
factor in the unpredictable weather and even more unpredictable economy,
a simple plant nursery was no longer enough to sustain the constant
Monty and Emma have introduced a series of courses,
lectures and events at the Nursery. They opened a café in 2016 and
expanded their gift shop. The Walled Nursery today is no longer just a
beautiful place to buy spectacular plants, but an educational centre as
well as a unique events venue hosting everything from art exhibitions to
craft fairs to open air theatre, not to mention the perfect spot for a
cup of tea and slice of cake or a delicious lunch.
The Walled Nursery is safe for now and one suspects
that after 700 years of noblemen and charlatans, dreamers and schemers,
this little plot of land that started life so long ago as ‘Tongs’ will
be here for a long time yet